Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner for Madison, Taylor, and Lafayette Counties, Florida, to the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner

Madison CH. Florida  May 1st 1866

Colonel:–  I have the honor to submit the following report of my actions and observations as sub asst Commission in the Bureau of Ref. Freed & A Lands for the counties of Madison, Taylor and Layfaette, in the month of April 1866:–

In the first place I may state that I have been tasked to the very utmost of my abilities, to attend to the duties devolving upon me, and that by the present state of affairs–one county would be sufficient to absobre the attention of one person desirous of seeing the freedmen justly dealt with.  I have found no reliable assistants as yet, and I daily despond more in being successfull on this point.  From the one agent now appointed (Judge Brinson) I have no assistence.  The Justice of the Peace throughout the counties are ill disposed towards the freedmen.  They are clever enough to draw up contracts suitable to the employer, or receive others witnessed by citizens and often interested parties and approve them, as I have good reason to believe, without the laboring party being aware of the various stipulations they have entered into.

The mass of people, are ill disposed towards the freedmen, notwithstanding that planters are daily trying to impress upon me to the contrary.  The disposition of the planter is this:–  They have known the freedmen–heretofore only as their slaves, from which they could expect nothing but implicit obedience, no matter what tortures they chose to inflict, they are instilled with a feeling of power and despotism over this race which they cannot erase.  Like in slavery–the freedmen is supposed to take the like insult and degradation which he was compelled to do when a slave without ever a murmer or response.  His ignorance of reading and writing and lack of education is taken advantage of, whenever he comes in connection with the whiteman, and if a misunderstanding happens to be, with a whiteman of no more education than the ignorant freedman, which is a comon thing in this section, he is nevertheless persecuted and imposed upon by the white men, who are never failing to appear against him.

The mouth of the planter is an oath, a malediction, and a curse when he opens it to the freedman, and the freedman expected to be speechless.  The man with this mouth, is neverfailing in the church, he is devoted– he bows down– his faith is that of a saint– he may be a director, or the minister of the church himself, and nobody would dare to call him anything but a just man in this vicinity, except myself.  What can the country expect, when the wife of the minister whips her servants accompanying the same with oaths & stimulates her husband to worse actions?  The same with the Judge of the County Criminal Court and others the “so called elite’ of the country.

The freedman will not be protected in his Civil Rights–in the present state of affairs in the county, in which he now finds himself unless his trial for a long time to come, is either entirely conducted by persons unacquainted with slavery or revised by such as understand the qualities of untruthfullness in the planter as well as in the freedmen when brought to testify against each other.  It is incredible how the planter will LIE to sustain his persecution of the freedmen–when brought in contact with the law.  The civil laws of the country with those in whom the discharge thereof is placed will not do the freedmen justice.  In all their actions “the agricultural interests” of the planter is formost in their minds, and the Legislation and State Laws prove that by their own saying–that such “is essential to the welfare and prosperity of the entire population.”1  This formost in their minds–excludes the freedmen from their rights in civil tribunals.  In many instances the freedmen is wors off than when in slavery.  His employer has no interest in his health, more often, he has it in his illness; for when ill the freedmen pays his employer at various rates for lost time.  The same when a day or hour is lost, from other causes.  Extravagante accounts are brought in against the freedmen which often exceed his dues–scarcely ever agreeing with the freedmen's statement and belief must be given to the planters account because of his ability to write, or have somebody to keep a written account for him.

I have heard of no one instance of the civil authorities endeavoring to arrest and punish those who wrong or abuse the freedmen; such cases being entirely looked over unless when coming to my knowledge.  The employer is often disposed to break contracts and turn off the laboring freedmen, of course without wages, for when called to account he will produce, as above stated, a bill against the freedman, completely eclipsing his dues   The laborer on the other hand is firmly bound to the employer–no matter how brutal, how vile–how exacting he may be–there is no help for the freedmen, unless the planters statement and his witnesses are disbelieved.  My experience is–that a certain lying propensity, which the freedman inherit from slavery, is no less with the employer when his interests or his color is in opposition to that of the freedmen are at stake.  I do believe that one half and more of the white population will swear falsely against the freedmen, when brought before a tribunal.  I think it nessessary that some form of contract able to insure a certain amount of justice to the freedmen should be issued, from some high authority, not leaving it to those who wish to take advantage of the freedman, or a Sub. Asst Commissioner whose action of anulling contracts which often do not reach him until months after they have been entered into, would be looked upon, as high handed actions, and contrary to the laws of a free goverment.  Planters will argue, that in a time like the present, the loss of a days labor of one man is worth five dollars to them, and yet the laborer gets no more than from twelve to twenty dollars a month.  When he is sick, he loses his time, pays the employer at rates from twenty-five cents to one dollar a day, and incurs a medical bill, the payment of which is often entirely out of his reach.  Now that slavery is abolished–the free labor system of the south compares with that of the north, as near as black with white–the same with the treatment of the laborer, by the employer.

The state laws protect the planter in all their bearings–while there is no equivalent justice for the freedmen.

They say–“whenever any person of color shall have entered into a contract to serve as a laborer for a year or any other specified term–if he shall refuse or neglect to perform the stipulations of his contract by wilfull disobedience of orders, wanton impudence or disrespect to his employer, fail or refuse to perform the work assigned him et. he or she shall be liable upon the complaint of the employer, or his agent made under oath, before any Justice of the peace, to be tried before the criminal Court of the County etc”2  This protects the employer   he can readily make out one or other case against the freedmen, and will never fail in having judgement against him, on account of the sympathies of the jury, which are for the planter and against the freedmen.  They think the freedmen too well off because he can say “I am no longer a slave! but free!”  They contract with the head of a family disregarding–his necessities in having to provide for a large family, which formely was the care of the owner, and imagine that if the head of the family is fed that the rest require nothing.

Since the proclamation of April 2d by the President of the United States3 a defiant air seems to have taken possession of the community boasting of their State Laws defying and ridiculing the laws passing Congress more particularly the Civil Rights Bill, which they openly declare shall never be put in execution.4

The better educated and cooler men, refrain from public expressions of this kind, but an observer cannot but detect the true meaning of their silence.  It is strange to me, where the favorable reports regarding the freedmen in the south, come from.

I entered upon my duties entirely dispassionate of favor or prejudices, but I cannot help to declare, how my mind has been wrought since having been brought in connection with the freedmen   In my mind there is only one thing that can tend, towards a more liberal cause of justice being dealt out to the freedmen–And that is emigration from other parts settling in the south.

The duties generally devolving upon me, are embraced within the following:– Examing Contracts Citing parties reported for breach of contract, illtreatment of the freedmen, visiting plantations where a misunderstandings or difficulty's are taking place and endeavoring to make peace and cultivate a good understanding among all parties.  The freedmen are working well, and crops are advancing favorably.  Among the mass of people, there are a few worthy citizens, but the number is very small.  Many still avow openly the rebel and secession proclivities, boast of their exertions, towards that point, and say that tomorrow, if an opportunity were given, they would fight as desperate as ever,  I have the honor to be Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant

J. E. Quentin

1st Liut J. E. Quentin to Colonel T. W. Osborn, 1 May 1866, Q-29 1866, Letters Received, series 586, FL Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.

1. The quoted words are from a law enacted the previous January. (An Act in Relation to Contracts of Persons of Color, 12 Jan. 1866, The Acts and Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly of Florida, at its Fourteenth Session, Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Tallahassee, on Monday, December 18, 1865 [Tallahassee, Fla., 1866], pp. 32–33.)

2. The quoted passage is from the law cited immediately above, in note 1.

3. In the proclamation, President Andrew Johnson had declared the insurrection at an end in all the former Confederate states except Texas and pronounced “military occupation, martial law, military tribunals, and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” unacceptable “in time of peace.” (U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, 17 vols. [Boston, 1850–1873], vol. 14, pp. 811–13.)

4. Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act on April 9, 1866, over President Johnson's veto. For a description of its provisions, see Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 18–19.

Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 122–25.